Reviewing the old school: Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Do you remember this film? I didn’t remember this film until quite recently, and I can’t for the life of me think of why. Thinking back to when Thank You for Smoking was released all the way back in 2005, it was a pretty big deal. Not like in a blockbuster, Transformers or The Dark Knight kind of way, but, I mean, I was in fucking high school and I was hearing about what a brilliant film it was. That’s not normal, is it? I don’t think that’s normal. This film though, this film was special. This smart little indie film all about arguments and talking, without any explosions and only a little sex, had us teenage Aussie millennials talking or at least my circle of friends, and for good reason. Because my friends are weird. And it’s a great film. So why’s it so forgettable?

The film, fantastically written and directed by Jason Reitman, stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman for what is essentially big tobacco. Nick is suave, charming, good at what he does and loves his job. Since his job is convincing as many people as possible to smoke cigarettes, in most other films he’d probably be the bad guy. And he sort of is. But he’s so rationally proud of it that you can’t help but cheer for him and his cohorts to win over that bastard senator from Vermont who’s only thinking of the children. The film follows Nick at his highest (getting the film industry involved in making cigarettes cool – cooler – again) and lowest (an article is released revealing all the secrets he’d told to the writer, who he’d been sleeping with… also kidnapping and attempted murder) points while clearly explaining how political argument and debate work, the art of lobbying and the importance of making informed decisions.

The acting is fantastic. Aaron Eckhart owns the role of Nick Naylor, and you never for a moment doubt his sincerity or self-awareness. Katie Holmes as the above mentioned reporter who really shouldn’t be trusted with sensitive information plays her role with a casual, professional glee. JK Simmons and William H Macy carry their roles with skill, as always, as Nick’s boss and sorta nemesis respectively and deliver some of the best lines in the movie, as do Maria Bello and David Koechner as Nick’s best friends Polly Bailey and Bobby Jay Bliss (alcohol and gun lobbies respectively). Smaller roles are perfectly cast, like Robert Duvall as The Captain and Rob Lowe as Hollywood fixer Jeff Megall. Even Cameron Bright, the (at the time) child actor playing Nick’s son Joey does a great job (though there was one or two moments that felt a little flat). Jason Reitman did a fantastic job with this. The dialogue is well written and the editing switches from long, drawn out moments to rabid flashes expertly. The music is excellent, and I loved the song playing over the opening credits.

What’s great about this film is the moral ambiguity of its theme: mainly, to make your own informed choices and come to your own conclusions. Nick Naylor may be working for the ostensible bad guys, a big corporation that cares more about profits than human lives, but he does so with surprising moral conviction and (I think mostly because of his frank narration) far more honesty than what we’d normally expect. He definitely seems more honest than the manipulative Senator Finistirre. But what I love about this film, what I really love about this excellent piece of satire, is that it is incredibly self-aware. The information it is providing is nothing new, and it knows that it’s nothing new. Admits to it cheerfully and wittily. At the end, at the climax of the movie when Nick sits in at a hearing about putting a skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs he acknowledges that he knows cigarettes are bad for you. In fact everybody knows cigarettes are bad for you. Similarly, the audience already knows about what the film is apparently revealing. We know that big corporate powers use films and celebrities to sell their products. We know that they use misleading scientific studies to continue lying to the consumer. We know that they have huge teams of lawyers to tie down opponents in legal red tape. We know that they lie, cheat and bribe. And the film knows we know. Thank You for Smoking is not about revealing the dangers of the world. It treats us more intelligently than that. The film is about the power of argument and persuasion, and whether you’re right or wrong depends on how convincing you are. Nick Naylor is the hero of this film because he is the best at arguing. That’s all. Mind you I’m a fan of arguing (love a good fight), so maybe I’m just reaching my own conclusions (see what I did there?)

So, you remembering this film now? Maybe saying I’d forgotten this film is going a bit too far. I don’t know what made me think of it the other day, but I remembered it immediately, and enough where I was able to start thinking about what I was gonna write down before the rewatch. But it still feels like it should be far better remembered than what it is, up there with other political satires like Wag the Dog or… shit… I can’t think of any similar enough examples at this exact moment. Point is, if you haven’t you should watch this film. If you have, watch it again. It’s an easy film to over-analyse and under-analyse, and it’s a great piece of smart cinema regardless. Funny too.

Reviewing the Old School: The Castle (1997)

It’s not just a house, it’s a home. Just like how this isn’t just any old movie, this is and likely will remain one of the most iconically Aussie movies you can possibly watch. At least that’s the conclusion that one of my best mates and I came to watching it on Tuesday afternoon, hungover from Monday’s Australia Day revels and trying to sufficiently recover for round two in the coming evening.

Released in 1997, The Castle tells the story of the Kerrigan family, led by patriarch Darryl (Michael Caton), and their fight against the corporate powers trying to seize and bulldoze their home in order to build a new runway at the nearby airport (as in literally right next door). Told through the narration of youngest son Dale (Steven Curry) this film both reflected and informed Australian culture. On the one hand, the Kerrigans and their neighbours are a collection of stereotypes of bogan culture in the late nineties (and now). They own five cars, make casually racist remarks without any malice, have generally atrocious hair, have no wish to move outside of their insular little community, gamble, spend more time reading the trading post than the newspaper and think that the only show funnier than Hey, Hey it’s Saturday is The Best of Hey, Hey it’s Saturday.

On the other hand, it’s also informed Australian culture. If an Aussie says you should “tell him he’s dreaming” or remarks upon the “serenity” of a particular location, they’re referencing The Castle. And we reference it a lot. Seriously. Y’know how much I talk about the Borderlands games? There’s a location in the Pre-Sequel called ‘So Much Serenity.’ That’s a reference to The Castle. Shit, while doing HSC English it made up the Australian required viewing on a syllabus that included Nobel Prize winning poets. Few other films have had such a lasting effect on Aussie culture. It makes you ask the question: why has this moderately funny and heartwarming film remained so important in the national consciousness while other moderately funny and heartwarming films fallen out of it?

I think it’s because of the sincerity of the script and cast. I think that while it isn’t exactly the prettiest reflection, we do like what we see. The Kerrigans are working class, unworldly, uneducated, the eldest son is in prison, and all of them are good people without question. The Kerrigans hold to principles of mateship and community that are often pushed as being quintessentially Australian. Darryl’s first thought upon finding out that the airport is seizing homes is to run to their neighbour Jack’s house, the oldest on the block. Their lawyer, Dennis Denuto (played wonderfully by Tiriel Mora) spends much of the film terrified and out of his depth. He knows he can’t win, knows how badly they’ll lose, even remarks that he’s “shitting himself” when they have a fighting chance, but he jumps into the ring anyway because his mate’s in trouble and asked him for help. Even the ending is something sincerely, positively Australian. They don’t Erin Brockovich or Miracle on 34th Street their way to victory, pouring through pages of legal notes themselves until they find a loophole or performing some gesture that warms the heart of the judge that’ll save their homes, like in so many American films. They win because Darryl meets a retired deus ex machina… I mean QC who was an expert in constitutional law named Lawrence Hammill (played also wonderfully by Charles Tingwell) and they bond over shared pride in their children. It falls upon the idea that Australia is an egalitarian society, that mateship crosses boundaries of class, wealth and education, and that when you see a mate down on his luck you do every fucking thing possible to help him. Darryl is a good bloke, and in Australia we help good blokes.

Now, is that necessarily true? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s part of how we like to think about ourselves. And the film plays it with a perfectly straight face. The acting helps. Everyone puts out a great performance, Michael Caton in particular bringing a lot of emotion to his character. Special props go to Stephen Curry as our narrator, youngest son Dale. Dale is a character who absorbs every detail and is bluntly obvious about things, and Stephen brings a fantastic and positive honesty to the role.

The script is excellent. The editing and camera work are solid. Rob Sitch, the director and one of the writers, know what he’s doing with this kind of comedy. The soundtrack was a bit forgettable. If there’s any flaws with the film, it’s that the few female characters occupy the background a little too much, and that the comparisons between the Kerrigans’ legal battle and the issues of Aboriginal land rights, the Mabo Decision and Terra Nullius varied between hamfisted and a little cringeworthy. They’re not huge flaws, especially when compared to other Australian films, but they’re worth mentioning (and if you think I’m underplaying them right now, drop a comment, the discussion would be great).

Anyway, long story short, great film. Iconically Australian. Definitely worth a watch even if you’re not from the land down under. At the very least it’s worth mentioning as being Eric Bana’s film debut.

Reviewing the Old School: Labyrinth (1986)

There was this moment on Tuesday when I actually managed to be in the kitchen at the same time as a bunch of my housemates. Odd working hours, a fucked up sleeping and eating schedule and a propensity on my days off to eat out for meals that aren’t breakfast make this a rarer occurrence than it is for a lot of other people I know. But there we were, chatting in the kitchen while waiting for our turn to use the kitchen-top/stove/table. Inevitably, the conversation turned to David Bowie’s very recent, very unfortunate passing. We talked about the music. And we talked about the movies. He had an impressive number of roles, but the one that I think best covers what David Bowie was and remains to many is Labyrinth.

“Of course,” said my French housemate after a moment of what I can only assume were internal translations, “it’s a classic.”

And, rewatching it again with her yesterday evening, I can’t help but agree.

Released in 1986 it tells the story of Sarah, played by Jennifer Connelly, whose brother Toby, played by Toby Froud (who actually now apparently works in creature effects and design), is kidnapped by Jareth the Goblin King, played by none other than Ziggy Stardust himself. She’s then given thirteen hours to solve the titular Labyrinth or lose her brother forever (as he will be turned into a goblin himself, and they just have the worst manners).

This is one of those films that, in my occasionally humble opinion, just ticks so many of the right boxes. The creature designs are as clever and hilarious as everything done by Jim Henson era Jim Henson Company (and again, directed by the man himself), but still maintain a level of nightmare fuel that means they still feel like a threat to our intrepid heroes. The set designs are whimsical but surreal, always familiar but always something else. Something other. The characters are fantastic. The self-aware coward Hoggle who finds courage through friendship, the yeti(?) Ludo who commands the stones themselves, Sir Didymus and his frightened mount. David Bowie just rocking it as the Goblin King. Camp enough to pull off what was a bizarre hairdo even in the eighties, but with genuine sex-appeal and enough gravitas to be menacing. Playing a character like Jareth is such typical Bowie, with his many stage names and changing personalities, and he does it so well.

I feel like the best character, though one easily lost in the background of colourful and unique characters is Sarah. She immediately regrets her wish when the Goblin King steals her little brother, but doesn’t spend any time moping. She sees the Labyrinth and simply goes, “well, better get started then.” She’s kind, but not to a fault. Clever, imaginative and has a great deal of common sense. She starts the film an aggrieved teenager (one that the audience can see has no real reason to feel aggrieved), like all teenagers, obsessed with the childish things from a perceived better age. By the end of the film, she’s grown up and moved on, with a clearer view of life and fairness (or that a lack thereof is inevitable but not insurmountable). She also realises that becoming a grownup doesn’t mean giving up all her childish things and ways. There are some things you must do alone (like, y’know…), but not everything. It’s a coming of age story, but a far more subtle one than you see in a lot of coming of age stories these days (especially the ones meant for young women with their “THIS SOCIETY IS A METAPHOR FOR HIGH SCHOOL AND THE PROTAGONIST IS SPECIAL AND UNIQUE JUST LIKE YOU” messages being about subtle as a steel-cap boot to the crotch). Sarah neither starts or ends the film perfect, but she better than what she was by the final scene.

And lastly, but definitely not leastly, there’s the music. Good god there’s the music. I don’t talk about music very often in these posts, that’s something I’m trying to fix because it’s so often a vital part of what makes films so great, even if they’re not musicals like this. The score of the film is atmospheric and dark, punctuated by songs that are wonderfully bright. And it is the bright songs that stay in your head after the film is over, and sit there, bouncing up and down excitedly. Songs like Chilly Down and Magic Dance. The soundtrack is fantastic, but it is those songs that stick with you (and play through the ending and credits), a conscious choice I expect. Just, listen. It’s great.

It’s a classic film, a combination of talents that resulted in something that can be watched and enjoyed by everyone even thirty years on. Give it a watch.

Reviewing the old school: The Mummy (1999)

The first of two ‘Reviewing the old school’ posts this week, since I skipped the one before New Year.

One of the first questions that occurred to me when I sat down to write this was “do they make movies like this anymore?” Short answer is “yes” with a “but.” Long answer is the same except with a more drawn out “but.” Like a “but” that takes seven syllables to say.

I watched this movie so many times when I was a kid, alongside its sequel The Mummy Returns (which will eventually get its own review). For good reason. It’s an incredibly fun film and at the time I was too young to be concerned with little things like “cultural appropriation” and “white-washed casts” (now I’m too nostalgic to be overly concerned, if I’m being honest, and this film isn’t even close to the worst example. It is an example though, and that is always worth a mention). The story is largely what you’d expect it to be. High Priest has sex with Pharaoh’s mistress. High Priest murders Pharaoh. High Priest is turned into mummy. Three thousand years later he’s accidently brought back to life by a librarian, her brother and bodyguard/guide. He then proceeds to eat a bunch of cowboys, ’cause a half-dozen or so of the ten plagues of Egypt and kidnap the Librarian to bring back his dead girlfriend (the above mentioned Pharaoh’s mistress). Hijinks ensue.

The CGI and special effects hold up remarkably well considering that the age of the film. Most of the time when we actually see the titular mummy it’s at night, in the dark, hiding the worst of it. The instances where the mummy sucks out the cowboys soul juices occur off screen. We see the shadow against the wall, zoom in on a minions cringing face, hear a scream and the mummy’s roar, then get to see the practical effects results. Even the larger CGI set-pieces use practical effects and good common sense to great effect. A moment at the end has a computer generated sandstorm chasing a real-life biplane. A fight against the also-mummified priests of Imhotep (the mortal name of the immortal mummy) and reawakened warriors involves plenty of computer-animated characters leaping all over the place and crawling across the ceilings, but also some excellent costuming, simple animatronics and stuntwork. The result is a film that never takes you out of the moment, even at its most glaringly fakest.

What makes this ‘undead-boy meets girl and tries to sacrifice her to ancient gods’ tale so compelling is really the characters. Rachel Weisz is fantastic as Evy, the proud librarian who finds her self-confidence and saves the day at least twice by being the smartest, most educated person in the room. Brendan Fraser plays an excellent world-weary tough-guy in Rick O’Connell, with enough sarcasm to come off as witty but not so much that cynicism becomes his defining trait. John Hannah as Jonathan (Evy’s brother) again plays a well balanced character. As the good guys ongoing comic relief character, he’s a lying, cheating, thieving coward. He’s also loyal, quick-thinking, smart and obviously cares deeply for his sister (needing assurances from O’Connell that they’d rescue a recently captured Evy before escaping from a mob into the sewers). Oded Fehr, despite playing a Berber stereotype, does it with a great deal of gravitas and sincerity (he has a fantastically dramatic voice), but there’s also a moment when he’s strapped to the wing of an airplane grinning like a schoolboy. And you don’t doubt that grin for a moment, you don’t doubt that despite the danger he’s someone doing something incredibly, exhilaratingly novel and enjoying every second of it. On the other side of things Kevin J. O’Connor as the greedy, survive-at-the-expense-of-everyone-around-you Beni is easy enough to dislike, but you still sorta hope he makes it out at the end of the film.

The only character who didn’t work in my opinion was the villain, Imhotep, the titular mummy, played by Arnold Vosloo. I don’t know why. Nothing against Vosloo, he was competent enough, but I just never found him all that intimidating when he was in his human form. Might’ve been because costuming had him running around in just his budgie smugglers and a bathrobe for a lot of it. Hard to take a guy seriously when he looks like he’s just coming back from reading by the hotel pool.

Even the minor characters are great and memorable. The Americans have little to do aside from become fodder for the raging mummy and not a huge amount of screentime, but they’re each distinct and memorable. Erick Avari as Dr. Bey get’s only a few minutes and just a little bit of dialogue, but they’re good minutes and he receives an epic end. Bernard Fox plays an epically named, alcoholic Royal Air Force pilot who goes faces death with a maniacal laugh. Omid Djalili plays one of his more intentionally irritating characters, but doesn’t last long enough in the film to be a mark against it, showing a great deal of restraint by the writers and directors who could very well have decided they needed even more comedy relief. Enough time to be funny, not enough to become baggage.

So yeah, great film. Would recommend you watch.

And on that note, I want to segue back to the question I asked (and answered) at the beginning. Do they still make movies like this anymore? Fun action-adventures driven less by plot than by memorable characters and witty banter. Seems like these films hit their peak at the turn of the century then sorta died out (following a similar trajectory to Jackie Chan’s presence in Western films). But yeah, they do. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is still going strong. Thing is, the last PoC was pretty lousy, the next PoC is probably gonna be worse and of the original trilogy it’s only the first that’s really remembered fondly. Keeping with Johnny Depp vehicles, Alice in Wonderland and The Lone Ranger were both pretty terrible in their own ways. Prince of Persia was an attempt that was, ultimately, not memorable at all. A lot of G-rated stuff, I guess, but even then. Seems like a lot of the films that should be taking a similar tone to The Mummy are instead taking themselves way too seriously. And the ones that aren’t are made by people like Adam Sandler.

I guess you could look at the harder stuff. You could make the argument that Quentin Tarantino’s making some great action-adventures with memorable characters and snappy banter, but there’s a whole lot more violence and swearing. I got no fucking problem with that, but I’m disinclined to let kids I’m with watch Django Unchained ’til they’re old enough to understand what ‘revenge fantasy’ means.

Animation still scratches the itch, I guess. And now that I think about it, the superhero films (the MCU ones, not the DC/Warner Bros ones… yet) probably fit the bill pretty well. But still, it’s different. Y’know what? This requires more thought. I think this needs a post all its own. I’ll get back to you.

In the meantime watch The Mummy. It’s a fun film, good action, great characters. An easy way to kill an hour and half.

Dying to discuss: Or why I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Did you know there’s a new Star Wars film in the cinemas right now? Of course you do. Aside from the massive multi-platform advertising campaign that can only be pulled of by a media super-power like Disney, it’s bloody Star Wars, arguably the biggest franchise ever with the kind of pop-culture influence that even a lot of actual wars could never compete with. I went and saw it last Monday. Highly recommend you go see it, even if for no other reason than so I can talk about it without spoiling something. Or everything. ‘Cause I really, really wanna. Talk about it that is, not spoil it. I’m not a bastard. Or am I? Maybe, sometimes.

It’s at this point that I’m gonna mention that I might be talking about events and characters in the film that probably count as spoilers. Nothing major but if you haven’t seen it yet and want to avoid all mention of the film before you do, well, you’ve been warned.

Yeah, so anyway, I get the feeling that this is gonna be one of those films we talk about for a while in a really good way. Y’see everyone who’s seen it agrees that this is a good film, but no one seems to agree on how good it is. A few people were disappointed, a few people were raving. I loved it, but Mad Max: Fury Road still stands as my favourite film of 2015. Thing is, there was a lot to talk about Mad Max as well.

What I mean is that there’s a lot to unpack with this film, a lot more going on than a shallow conversation would at first reveal. An example: one of the complaints I’ve heard is that The Force Awakens is essentially just A New Hope. Like it literally has all the same story beats. I’d argue though that this is a good thing. It keeps the film feeling familiar while the new characters and relationships (I’ve come to realise are actually the most important thing in a Star Wars story) means that it still feels fresh and new. It’s also a demonstration by the directors, writers and producers that they understand what made the original trilogy so great while setting the scene for their own (’cause I expect there will be parallels between Episode VIII and Empire Strikes Back, but I don’t think they’ll be as blatant as this one). Someone else had issue with villain Kylo Ren, that he was less ‘all powerful badarse’ and more ‘tantrum throwing bitch.’ Guy wasn’t a menacing character, especially following in the footsteps of Darth Vader. Meanwhile I think that’s the point. This guy wants to be Darth Vader so badly, but he isn’t and probably never will be. It seems to me that the film-makers themselves are pointing this out. After all, that’s a big fucking helmet to fill. But it’s also them saying that he’s a different villain. Yeah, he’s powerful, merciless, brutal and very, very dangerous, but he’s also morally conflicted and emotionally torn.

This isn’t even getting into theories about who and what are which. I’m of the belief that main character Rey, played fantastically by Daisy Ridley, is a descendant of Obi Wan Kenobi (the only other main character in either trilogy with an English accent, and with Ewan Mcgregor doing a quick bit of voiceover work telling her she’s taken the first few steps towards the Force).

Listen, she's new to the whole "Force" thing. It's a lot to take in all at once.
Listen, she’s new to the whole “Force” thing. It’s a lot to take in all at once.

Shit, there’s stuff to talk about with all the characters. John Boyega as Finn, the Stormtrooper turned hero who may or may not be force sensitive (I don’t reckon he is, but we’ll see in the next few movies) but clearly forges a unique bond with Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Following that up, what do we think Poe’s role is going to be in the future? He didn’t have a huge amount to do in The Force Awakens, though he was established as a key character moving forward (guessing surrogate son for General Leia). To be clear, the whole thing is well acted (Adam Driver goes from calm to enraged excellently as Kylo Ren and even Harrison Ford seems to be enjoying himself) and I loved all the characters in different ways.

You get what I’m saying though, right? There’s a lot to talk about with this film. Love it or merely like it, I think we’ll be discussing the characters, the intricacies and the story mechanics for a while. And we’ll probably start doing so in about a week’s time.

Y’know, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for films worth talking about long after they’d finished their theatrical run. The above-mentioned Mad Max, for instance. Wonder what 2016’s gonna be like.

So, yeah, go see Star Wars. Be part of the conversation.

Reviewing the old school: Die Hard (1988)

So I wanted to do a Christmas movie this week since, y’know, Christmas. Took me a little while to decide which one, since there are quite a few of them (many of them actually pretty shit). Then I remembered I hadn’t watched the original Die Hard in a while, and the choice was made. I procured a copy, ordered a curry and sat back to watch what remains one of my favourite action movies ever.

Released in 1988, the film stars Bruce Willis as John MccLane, an NYPD cop visiting his estranged wife at her work Christmas party (in an incomplete skyscraper in Los Angeles). Then a bunch of mostly European thieves masquerading as terrorists take all the party guests hostage. Hijinks ensue.

But you should already know all this, because you should have already seen this movie by now. In all honesty this should be on that 1001 Movies to See Before You Die list if it isn’t already. It’s a classic action film that holds together incredibly well nearly three decades later (holy shit Die Hard turned 27 this year). The fight scenes are appropriately brutal, the set pieces are spectacular and the coincidences never feel as contrived as they do in a lot of other films (including, if I’m being honest, Die Hard 2). The music, as well, is fantastic. It’s something I hadn’t really paid much attention to until I rewatched it this week, but it manages to add tension in the necessary scenes and avoids the unnecessary synth-rock that’s left the soundtracks to so many other movies from the 80s so dated. Best of all it manages to keeps a Christmas theme going throughout the film.

It’s little stuff like that which makes this movie so much fun and the it never treats the audience like an idiot. It talks through particular scenes without feeling like it’s spoon-feeding us through Bruce Willis’ conversations with the Hans Gruber (the villain), Al Powell (his lifeline on the outside) and himself (you’re only crazy if there’s someone around to hear you). It also has a surprisingly high opinion of intelligent characters. John MccLane is not an idiot. He’s good at improvising and working through problems. Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is witty and charming, very capable of getting his hands dirty, able to think clearly, rationally and keep an eye on the prize throughout. Idiotic behaviour, however, usually results in the death of that idiot, as we see with Ellis and the FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (no relation). Going in guns blazing doesn’t work, and I wish more action movies would take this lesson to heart.

There are flaws, of course. Holly Gennaro, played by Bonnie Bedelia, has little to do aside from being someone for John MccLane to save. Reginald VelJohnson’s character Sergeant Al Powell tells a story about shooting an unarmed 13 year old boy, meant to garner sympathy for the cops, comes off a little sour given recent events (and probably should have given contemporary events as well). Some guns never seem to run out of bullets until it suddenly ‘matters’. The territorial police commissioner trope, furious about property damage and glass, is a little overdone. As is the henchman who just will not fucking die.

But it’s easy to overlook these flaws. Especially ’cause this movie gave us Alan Rickman. I mean, yeah, Bruce Willis was also a fairly fresh face known for his TV and commercial work propelled to Hollywood fame by this film, but he didn’t play Severus fucking Snape in the Harry Potter films. Without Die Hard Rickman may have remained a relative or complete unknown. And that would have been tragic.

So, yeah, watch this film if you haven’t already. But I expect just about everyone likely to read this already has, so, watch it again I guess? Yeah, watch it again.

Have a Happy Christmas (or Chanukah or Winter Solstice or just a grand public holiday for the many people who don’t celebrate it). Let’s see if I can think of a good New Year movie for next time.

Reviewing the old school: Troy (2004)

Mate, there is so much wrong with this film. I think the worst part is that it could have been so much better if they’d actually used the source material properly. Y’know, with all the gods and magic and not trying to make us sympathise with Paris of Troy. Seriously, you read the Iliad? You know what we’d call that guy in the modern parlance? A date-rapist. Doesn’t matter that he had help from the Goddess of Love instead of roofies, he still fucks Helen without her conscious consent. That ain’t right.

I don’t get why they cut all the supernatural stuff out of the story. It certainly wouldn’t have made the movie any worse, and it certainly could’ve made the story a whole lot more interesting (imagine Sean Bean’s Odysseus having a D and M with Athena, the Goddess of Just War and Wisdom herself, on the beach beside his ship, or perhaps Ares, the God of War, stalking the battlefield with a leering smile at all the carnage). Could’ve been epic. And it’s not like we’d have a problem with the whole ‘Gods and goddesses interfering with the lives of mortals’ thing. I mean, The Mummy and it’s sequel came out five and three years before, respectively, and they did pretty well with the whole weird foreign supernatural thing. Hell, bloody Disney went and covered the same sort of ground as Troy, but including the divine intervention, with its animated film Hercules (and the great spin-off series about his high school years).

Maybe they were worried that if there was too much Deus Ex Machina going on we wouldn’t be able to take Brad Pitt’s flowing golden hair or Eric Bana’s tinted curls seriously. Maybe they were worried that they’d have to make Orlando Bloom the bad guy who dooms his whole city because he just couldn’t keep it in his pants when he met a hot girl who wasn’t interested. Maybe I’m giving the rest of the film too much credit and it would still be shit anyway.

Probably that last one, but the point still stands.

The acting isn’t great. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana ham it up with that weird pseudo-English accent that non-English actors are expected to put on whenever they’re in a historical period earlier than the 1600s. While Brad Pitt never seems to take it seriously (understandably), Bana actually seemed to get better as the film went on and I think he was the right choice for Hector, noble and doomed and the only one with the common sense to say “let’s just give Helen back to the Greeks, Paris will get over it and even if he doesn’t it isn’t worth going to fucking war over.” There’s a lot of great actors in this film, and they do their damned best with the material. Special props to Brian Cox who plays the role of the villainous, prideful, megalomaniacal Agamemnon with a surprising amount of subtlety. Sean Bean’s Odysseus seems woefully underused. I mean, they don’t even kill him. How you can put Sean Bean in your movie and have him play the one character that everyone knows is gonna survive?

The direction and editing are an overlong mess. It’s a two and a half hour long film and not nearly enough of that is filled with the kind of character moments to actually make us care. Some of it just seems painfully unnecessary. Case in point, the film opens with a map of the Aegean. No voice over, no music, no intro credits. Just a fucking map on the screen for like thirty seconds to a minute. Maybe that minute could have been spent fleshing out Ajax a little more, so we actually give a shit when he dies. Patroclus’ character could’ve been fleshed out a little better as well. I think fantastically named director Wolfgang Petersen was trying to channel old classics, the grand Biblicals and biopics like Ben HurSpartacus and Julius Caesar but it just doesn’t work. It’s too slow and not nearly as epic as we’d come to expect by then.

For all its flaws, and it has a lot of flaws (a lot of flaws) I absolutely love this film. My mates and I can basically communicate in movie and television quotes. Simpsons make up the bulk of our source material, with the two Hot Shots! films, the two Airplane (Flying High!) films, Gladiator and Lord of the Rings trilogy filling out the rest of our situational conversations. Troy occupies a special place for us as being the soundtrack for some of our most (or, I suppose, least) memorable nights of drunken debauchery. Someone refusing another beer would be met with a bellow of “Drink you lazy whore! Poles are sobering!” (several of my friends being of Polish origin). Midway through the night you’d likely hear a cry that “The taxi waits for us, I say we make him wait a little longer!” Someone skoling back beer after beer would be cheered on with “The man wants to die!” There was more than one occasion where we’d take Achilles’ speech at the prow of his ship before hitting the beach of Troy and adjust the wording, to fit our school and desired outcome “…my brothers of the schooner… do you know what’s waiting on the other side of the bar? Immortality! Take it, it’s yours!” I watch this film and I’m not thinking about the acting or the plot or the story, the dramatic lines are triggering memories of long nights and close friends.

So yeah. It’s a bloody terrible movie, but I love it dearly. Still, don’t watch it. It’s not worth it and might sour you on a couple of great actors. Read the Iliad and Odyssey instead. They’re classics for a reason.

Worth not stepping on: Thoughts on Ant-Man

Not the easiest thing to do anyway.
Not the easiest thing to do anyway.

One of the most unfair criticisms leveled against Ant-Man (the latest superhero film from the good folk over at Marvel), well before the film was released, was that it was a movie no one asked for or wanted. I recall one re-blog that did the rounds on Tumblr when the titular blogging site had a “Ask the cast of Ant-Man” going on, “How does it feel starring in a movie no one asked for?” or something along those lines, receiving plenty of the internet equivalent of snickers and backslaps at such a brilliant witticism. Personally I found it all a bit fucking disingenuous. I mean, I understand where a lot of these detractors were and are coming from. I too would have really liked to see a MCU film with a female or POC lead a lot sooner than they’re coming (and am bloody stoked for the Captain Marvel and Black Panther films, both due in 2018). And, hell, there has been a pretty large voice crying out for a Black Widow led film (though it seems a lot of that’s cooled off a bit since the arguably disappointing character arc and dialogue in Age of Ultron).

But it feels like this ignores three key points. First, I’m sure there were plenty of people who were overjoyed to see the Ant-Man film. I mean, the guy had to have had some fans (and there must of been a few disgruntled fanboys and girls crying foul when Tony Stark constructed Ultron in the MCU instead of Hank Pym). Second, films are regularly made that aren’t asked for. We frequently don’t know what we want. Shit, I didn’t know how much I wanted a Captain America movie til it was made and looked awesome. In fact we’re normally overjoyed when a film is made that isn’t a sequel (even if it is part of a larger franchise or broadly shared universe, like the Pixar films). Third, why can’t we have both? Marvel studios and their Disney overlords are an enormous empire with plenty of talent to choose from, the millions to spend and an audience that is still eating out of the palm of their hands. Getting a She-Hulk, Spider-Woman or Falcon movie out between AoU and Ant-Man would not have been impossible. Blaming Ant-Man for being made when other possibly great films aren’t just doesn’t sit well, ’cause it is not the film’s fault that they weren’t made.

Mind you, it doesn’t much matter. The film still topped the Friday box office and will likely do very well this weekend. It’s had pretty decent reviews by critics and the public. I also doubt very much the pre-release criticism had anywhere near the attention on social media that the abso-bloody-lutely delightful advertising campaign for the film managed to spark (tiny bilboards? Brilliant!) Most people who’d read this would probably even be surprised that this non-issue came up at all, anywhere. It’s a criticism I wanted to quickly address, however, because the aim was right even if the target was wrong.

I went and saw Ant-Man Friday with one of my housemates. It was good. Sharp dialogue, plenty of physical humour, a creative and satisfying climactic battle. Paul Rudd is funny in his non-threateningly charming way, with a strong emotional range that leads to a light-hearted pay-off. Corey Stoll’s character Darren Cross (eventually the Yellow-Jacket and villain through the entire film) is appropriately menacing and more than a little crazy, with his abandonment issues and desire for Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) respect (though I can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a copy-paste of Iron Man 3‘s Aldrich Killian). Evangeline Lilly is competent as Hope van Dyne, Hank Pym’s sort-of estranged daughter. But the father/daughter relationship could have used a lot more fleshing out. There’s supposed to be an enormous rift between the two but we never really see it (both characters coming off pretty one dimensional in the process) and the predictable confession and forgiveness scene doesn’t have any serious punch. Some of the best laughs come from Michael Peña’s role as Luis, the fast-talking, surprisingly-cultured ex-con/still-a-bit-crooked best friend of Ant-Man. He plays the role of comically stupid without ever appearing incapable, incompetent or unlikeable, and that is a true skill (and mark of a well-scripted character).

I can’t bring myself to give the kind of glowing recommendation to see it in the cinema that I gave to Guardians of the Galaxy. It falls into following too-predictable-cliches and  too-recognizable-tropes for that.The training montage, for instance, where the highly competent female supporting lead teaches the bumbling male how to do the role she should be doing. Thankfully it doesn’t go all the way (Hope is still a more competent hero at the end of the film, and Scott is given the role of Ant-Man over her because he’s expendable rather than ‘The Special/Chosen/Prophesied one). It’s a good film though. Funny. Clever. Worth watching. I think the best way to put is that you won’t regret it if you see it in the cinema. At the very least it’ll get a few laughs.